Oshi has a very large Buddha in him, one that can change the air into scented flowers. He used to be Tommy Whalen from Indianapolis but he had his eyes cut to look Japanese. He got started out in San Francisco in the early days when Buddha consciousness was just rising out there and people were still slipping pork in the seaweed soup.

At seventeen he did drag in a place called The Gay Deceiver and was billed as ‘The Boy With The Face Like The Girl Next Door.’ The owners paid him almost nothing and kept him strung out on hash in a little room above the bar, like a detective novel.

Somehow Oshi found the Zen community and started sitting za-zen. He collected ‘mad money’ from the state for being strung out. It’s free out there if you’re crazy enough. Oshi breathed hash and gin through the Buddha. Buddha breathed light and air through Oshi. It all changed his mind to indigo. Buddha consciousness rose in him until he didn’t feel like the broken piano at the bar anymore.

Now thirty years later he has a permanent room at the bath house and prays for young boys. Doesn’t sit anymore. Said he became realized ten years ago with a young hustler from Akron, Ohio who told him he could stop flying, just lay back and touch ground.

Old Oshi, very round now, jet black wig, looks like a retired Buddha in his cheap wash-and-wear kimonos. He’s graceful old gentleman Buddha. Buys everyone drinks. Gives away joints. Always high. Always lighting joss sticks. As he says, ‘Giving things is just a way of getting on with everyone, you know, the universe and everything. It’s like passing on the light.’

He told me once when he sang Billie Holiday’s ‘Blue Monday’ at The Gay Deceiver they used an amber spot and he wore a strapless lamé gown, beaded on his eyelashes, lacquered nails, and the people cried.

From The Salt Ecstasies (Graywolf Press, 2010). Copyright © 2010 by James L. White. Used with permission of Graywolf Press and The Permissions Company.